This shortened 60-game season has left the Orioles in a place that, essentially, inspired the whole idea of the studs-up rebuild they’re in years ago: too good to have a high draft pick, and not good enough to make the playoffs.
A report from ESPN on Tuesday said the 2021 draft order would most likely be the standings in reverse, the same way they are every year, though the March agreement on resumption of play left that ambiguous.
It’s possible that the Orioles were operating under that assumption anyway, and in that case, they knew they were out of the running for the top pick when they were within touching distance of a playoff spot two weeks ago. But the whole idea of rebuilding the way the Orioles are now is that there’s no real benefit to being in the middle of the pack.
They only were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention Tuesday, as they’re five games behind the Blue Jays with five games to go and don’t have the tiebreaker thanks to their 1-6 record against Toronto. Because of a nightmarish season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are 16-39, they were already out of the running for the first overall pick this weekend.
Without winning any more of their five games, they could pick as high as second, though the odds of that happening and the Texas Rangers or Arizona Diamondbacks winning a bunch of games this week aren’t high.
On the other end of the spectrum would be the possibility that the Orioles end up with the best record of the non-playoff teams in the American League and end up picking 12th or 13th overall, which would be the exact kind of middle ground teams try to avoid.
They stand at the pivot point of either of those options after Tuesday’s loss in Boston, with the eighth-worst record in the league. There are four teams two games above them, and four teams two games below them.
Those who are hoping to land in the top handful of picks won’t get much intentional help from the Orioles players themselves. The idea of rebuilding — specifically losing now to win later — is not one that exists at the field level. Manager Brandon Hyde has said for going on two seasons now that all he wants to do is see his team play well and compete, and that won’t change through Sunday in Buffalo.
Either way, the idea of making lineup or pitching decisions not to play the team’s best players to pick a few spots higher in the draft would be particularly counterintuitive considering their best pitchers right now are John Means, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin — all of whom they’re trying to develop at the highest level. Same goes with an offense whose most productive players of late have been Ryan Mountcastle and Cedric Mullins.
One variable in all of this would be whether José Iglesias makes it back into the lineup by the end of the season. Manager Brandon Hyde said he was hopeful he would be back in the next few days, but with the dream of a batting title now too far out of reach with the amount of time missed, it’s possible they could be safe and call it a year with a player who is still plenty valuable to them on a $3 million option next year.
Iglesias' actual value to the team might be overstated some, even with his impressive .377/.406/.515 batting line and 16 extra-base hits. While he has been the Orioles' most consistent offensive performer this year, they’re just 13-19 (.406) when he doesn’t start compared to 10-12 (.455) when he does.
In those 32 starts, however, the Orioles have scored 148 runs, an average of 4.63 runs per game. In the 23 games he didn’t start, including Tuesday, they scored 4.26 runs per game.
His health, along with the health of so many others, has been part of their offensive decline. When Hyde looks back at how they went from dark-horse playoff contenders two weeks ago in New York to playing out the string, that’s what he credits.
“That [Sept. 9] game in city field that we lost, [Michael] Conforto with the [bases-loaded] catch, kind of started our downslide a little bit,” Hyde said. "We didn’t play well in Yankee Stadium. They pitched very well that series, we lost a couple close games. I thought we played well against the Braves and then we ran into really good pitching against the Rays.
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“And I think you see our hitters are really scuffling, some of these guys are really scuffling right now and trying to get their numbers back up in the last week. We just have to start taking better at-bats. I thought we did a really nice job over the first five or six weeks with competitive at-bats, a grind-out mentality and we ran into a couple good pitching staffs and struggled. I’m glad that we played into it the last week of the season, but disappointed that we’re officially eliminated tonight.”